Electoral Reform and Labour

Charles Smith interviewed by Rankandfile.ca

The federal Liberal retreat from their big flashy promise of electoral reform has definitely killed the Trudeau honeymoon. Meanwhile, Prince Edward Islanders narrowly voted for electoral reform but Premier MacLauchlan has decided to ignore the results, leading to an angry protest of hundreds in Charlottetown. The PEI fiasco is just the latest modern electoral reform mess that we’re still mired in.

Electoral reform seems pretty easy to support if you want greater democracy, but things get pretty murky once you go into detail.

To gain some clarity on these questions, Rankandfile.ca turned to Charles Smith for answers. Smith is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science, St. Thomas More College, University of Saskatchewan. He is co-author with Larry Savage of a new book Unions in Court: Organized Labour and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

This interview was first published on the Rankandfile.ca website.

Rankandfile.ca (RF): Why electoral reform? What’s the basic argument for it?

Charles Smith (CS): Quite simply it is about creating a truly democratic electoral system. Canadians deserve a government that reflects and respects the wishes of voters. In some ways, that sounds simple and many of your readers might be thinking, “well don’t we already have that?”

In fact, we don’t. Canada’s voting system was created long before we could call our society “democratic.” It is a relic of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when voting was determined by ownership of property, by gender and by race. When you look at that history, what is telling is that those with power never acquiesce it willingly. They do so because popular movements make it impossible to ignore voices that are being excluded. But even when elites do acquiesce power, they never do so fully.

For instance, when workers struggled to end the property qualifications for voting, they were only successful over many years and even then, were left with the same voting system that was created by elites to maintain their own power. The examples are numerous, but here is one: in Britain during the Chartist movement in the nineteenth century, one of the organized working classes demands was for the working-class franchise (which for them was the white male franchise). But at the time, Britain used multi-member constituencies, many of which were drawn around estates of the landed gentry. In other words, there were members of parliament that were “chosen” by voters directly controlled by the propertied class! Some voting system.

It shouldn’t be surprising that Canadian elites chose the same voting system in the new Dominion. In fact, when you look at the debates surrounding Confederation (as many will be doing in this 150th year of Confederation) you find almost no reference to the voting system at all. That’s because both Liberal and Conservative elites agreed that the voting system which is bounded by white male propertied privilege was the norm and would be replicated. Even as the franchise was slowly opened to the working class, women, and people of colour, we are still left with that voting system. The time is right to question if a system with such a dubious past is appropriate for 2016.

And what does that voting system actually do? Well it favours certain interests more than others and rewards parties based on the values of those nineteenth century elites. What were those values? It certainly wasn’t democracy! Primarily, it was about stability. Part of that stability was making sure that regional elite interests were always represented in Parliament. And that is what the Canadian voting system reflects well: regional power blocs and stability. As your readers will know, governments in Canada are routinely selected with far less than fifty per cent of the vote. And you can only win government if you dominate in specific regions, with support from the ruling classes in those regions. That support is built over years of support with promises of federal money, regional patronage appointments (i.e. the Senate!), and large infrastructure projects etc. So the Liberals have a lock on Atlantic Canada and urban Ontario and Quebec and British Columbia. The Conservatives are competitive for power because they have a regional base in the West and suburban/rural Ontario and Quebec and British Columbia. What this means is that only a very few seats are really competitive in federal elections. So, in fact, parties are really only fighting over a small percentage of the electorate to flip or switch to them in order to find that magical 39-45% of the popular vote. The Greens and NDP really don’t have that stable regional support (although that has varied), are not well connected to regional elites, and have different bases of support so they’ve never been competitive on the national level.

It is time to end this. It is time to create a voting system that reflects the wishes of voters and puts the voices of voters front and centre. That would mean that voters’ choices are reflected in Parliament. No longer should a government be handed 100% of the power with 39% of the vote. No longer should a government be elected based on its support from regional elites. There are more important issues in Canada than simply reflecting regional interests. We need a voting system that reflects what voters are thinking and saying with their vote. That should be the only question we ask in a democracy: what do voters want?

RF: There are a few different types of electoral systems that are out there. What are they?

CS: That’s a good question. When you dive into the nuts and bolts of different types of voting systems, you can really get lost in the details. My position is that we need a form of Proportional Representation (PR). There are various forms of PR that would serve Canada well: Multi-Member Plurality (MMP) or Single-Transferable Vote (STV). These two systems receive a great deal of air time and both have merits. But given Canadians seem to have a genuine desire and support for the idea of “local representation” (the idea that an MP represents a certain geographic constituency) I think any form of PR would have to respect that. So, I would suggest that MMP would be the type of PR system that would find a great deal of support because it provides local representation but also provides a party “top up” so that you can much more closely align voter support and party representation in Parliament.

RF: Have the Liberals been pushing a particular type of reform? If so, is it any good?

CS: Yes and No. The Liberals, as your readers will know, have not been very forthcoming in the preference for voting reform. In some ways, this shouldn’t be surprising because the Liberals have done extremely well under our non-democratic system. After all, the party isn’t called the “natural governing party” for nothing. The Liberals are probably the most successful governing party (in terms of longevity and winning power) in the Western world. So it shouldn’t be surprising that many of the party apparatchiks have little desire for reform.

Yet, when the Party was mired in third place in 2014, Justin Trudeau made a promise: he promised that 2015 would be the last election under our undemocratic electoral system. And he won support on that promise. Recognizing that promise is out there, he has tried to backtrack: he’s claimed that he supports the Alternative Vote (AV), which isn’t really reform at all. AV would simply be a ranked ballot. Under a ranked ballot you’d rank the candidates on a ballot and votes would be redistributed under multiple counts until one candidate won a majority. Liberals are gambling this is a great reform because it looks like a change, without really changing anything else (no proportional top up, same riding boundaries). They’re also gambling that they’ll be everyone’s second choice so they’ll benefit the most from AV. Of course, voters may disagree.

Trudeau has also tried to back out of voting reform, stating that he is so popular that the desire for reform has waned. He’s backtracked on this, but it suggests that the Liberals are not desperate for reform. They’re going to need to be pushed by activists.

RF: What is the NDP’s position on electoral reform? Has it changed?

CS: The NDP has a solid position on PR. They have long advocated for PR primarily because they’ve long been a third party. Third parties generally like PR. And they should. The NDP generally gets 18-20% voter support but rarely wins that many seats in the House.

The provincial wings of the party have not been nearly as good on this question. The NDP has formed government in every western province and Ontario and Nova Scotia and has never once seriously considered implementing PR. This is unfortunate because it is a missed opportunity to really democratize the provincial state.

RF: The Tories have been calling for a referendum on electoral reform? Why?

CS: This is clearly an attempt to block reform. The Conservatives have no interest in changing the electoral system, which quite frankly is bizarre. This is not a party that has done exceptionally well in the federal arena. Yet, they know that they can form power with a small swing in the popular vote so they put their own self-interest ahead of democratic reform.

The idea of a referendum is really the politics of smoke and mirrors. The Conservatives claim the moral high ground calling for a referendum, claiming that any change to the way we vote must be approved by the electorate. Yet, this is not a party that has the slightest interest in democracy. All you have to do is look at their time in government when omnibus budget bills, dozens of free trade agreements limiting the power of the state and the “Fair Election Act,” which narrowed the ability of people to vote were all unanimously agreed upon by the Tory caucus. These are not democrats.

So why a referendum? Because the Tories are gambling that a referendum will kill reform. They have looked to the referendums in British Columbia, Ontario and PEI where governments had no interest in changing the system, where no money was spent on informing the public and where the rules were stacked against reform. And ironically, even when referendums are successful (as was the case in PEI just last month), the parties put their self-interest against change. Even if a referendum resulted in a yes vote, there is no guarantee that the voting system will change.

Quite simply, the call for a referendum is a way to put the Conservative’s self-interest ahead of democratic reform. It has nothing to do with democracy.

RF: It looks like Trudeau is retreating on electoral reform. What is going on here?

CS: When Trudeau made the promise of reform, he was stuck in third place and it did not look like the Liberals were going to win government in 2015. The promise was part of a concerted strategy by the Liberals to win voters from the NDP (and to a lesser extent the Greens).

When the Liberals first formed government – and to the credit of the PM’s office – they struck an all party committee where the mandate was to genuinely tour the country and hear the views of Canadians on electoral reform. The Liberals even acquiesced controlling the committee by giving the opposition parties a majority of seats on the committee.

Yet as the consultations got underway, the Minister of Democratic reform started her own parallel tour, which was strange. Why wasn’t the Minister on the committee? Why a parallel tour? Well now we know. The committee has reported that the overwhelming majority of presenters favoured some form of proportional representation. Yet, the Minister’s tour (which has not been covered nearly as well in the press) is claiming that she is not hearing “consensus” on reform. In other words, the Minister is claiming that she is hearing the exact opposite of what the committee has heard. The difference, of course, is that we can look at the Parliamentary record to verify the transcripts from the Parliamentary committee. For the Minister’s tour, all we can do is take her word for it.

Thus, it is pretty clear that the Minister is laying the foundation to back away from reform.

And then we have the Prime Minister. He has stated that the popularity of his government (and of himself personally) has weakened the desire amongst Canadians for electoral reform. Not only is this the height of political hubris but it misreads the arguments for reform. Electoral reform is not just about one government or one Prime Minister. It is about improving the quality of our democracy.

Clearly these comments suggest that the Liberals are putting their own power ahead of reform. That is the view today. The committee may still surprise us. But the Liberal power base is clearly quietly circling the wagons to defend anti-democratic first-past-the-post (FPTP) system in order maintain political power.

RF: Are there unions with positions on electoral reform?

CS: The unions have been very good on electoral reform. The CLC has been a champion of reform and has publicly come out in favour of proportional representation. There are a few things happening here. Clearly many in the CLC are aligned with the NDP, so they see PR as a way to elect more NDP MPs. There is no question about that.

But there is more going on here. Unions champion PR because many understand that a more democratic electoral system gives working people more voice in the political arena. No longer will governments be given false majorities. Governments will have to work to win support and thus the voices of working people and their unions cannot be ignored the way that they are now. So there is both principle and political opportunity behind the CLC’s position. The difference between the union position and the Conservatives, however, is that the unions support state democratization while the Tories do not.

RF: What should unions be doing around this issue?

CS: There is every indication that independent committee will recommend some form of PR, but will concede to a referendum. While the Minister and the Prime Minister may yet kill reform, they may concede to the committee.

By the way, were that to happen it is evidence enough that PR is a better system that FPTP. Why? Because an all-party committee made of diverse interests and political opinion were forced to work together, compromise on some positions and make decisions based on what they believed was in the best interests of Canadians. The committee will then have pushed back against their own party leadership which does not want reform. That would be quite telling.

If it were to happen, it means that unions are going to have to gear up for a referendum fight. It will have to mobilize to win a referendum. It other words, unions are going to have to use their organizing tools to educate and inform their members. They’re going to have to get people to the polls. And let’s be clear, it will be a fight where PR is the underdog. The media will be against it. The Liberals and Conservatives will be against it. The Liberals may concede to a supermajority in order to pass reform (60% of the vote), as they did in BC and Ontario. Business will be against it.

We must be prepared for that opposition. But it is a fight worth waging. A more democratic society is there for the taking. •

Charles Smith is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science, St. Thomas More College, University of Saskatchewan. Charles is co-editor of Canada's foremost labour studies journal Labour/Le Travail. He maintains a blog at socialjusticeandthecommongood.blogspot.ca, and tweets at @ProfSmithSask.